Published: October 7, 2003
– To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Central Park, the New-York Historical Society is exhibiting a selection of about 50 of its 431 original watercolors by John James Audubon (1785-1851) preparatory for his sumptuous, double-elephant folio print edition of The Birds of America, 1827-38.
The installation features birds that frequent Central Park, one of the most important natural bird sanctuaries in North America.
Central Park is one of the world’s great migratory way stations with more than 200 species passing through. According to an annotated checklist compiled by the Birdwatchers of Central Park for the Central Park Conservancy, The Birds of Central Park, 1996 and 2001, there are 24 year-round resident species.
Audubon’s spectacular watercolors depict year-round residents of Central Park and migratory denizens, as well as several rare species. (The exhibition labels will use Audubon’s nomenclature. Due to developments in ornithology and taxonomy changes, some of the birds that Audubon depicted, while having similar names to birds inhabiting Central Park, may not be the identical avian species). In these dazzling drawings Audubon’s innovations in the fields of art and natural history are apparent. He not only rendered the birds life-size, but also captured their lively interactions, sometimes with anthropomorphic characteristics, in cutting-edge, experimental mixed media.
In 1863 the historical society purchased this rare trove of watercolors, deemed by some a national treasure, directly by subscription from the famed naturalist’s widow, Lucy Bakewell Audubon (1787-1874). Among the highlights of the society’s collections, they are normally showcased four to six at a time in quarterly annual migrations in the society’s Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture in the “Audubon Niche.” But on this occasion about 50 will be installed in the Luman Reed Gallery in honor of Central Park, Frederick Law Olmstead’s and Calvin Vaux’s “natural” Manhattan oasis for birds and humans, whether residents or migrants.
The New-York Historical Society is at 2 West 77th Street at Central Park West. For information, call 212-873-3400 or visit www.nyhistory.org.
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